Cities' new job 1: disaster plans

Early confusion after Katrina prompts reviews across the US.

Hurricane Katrina has sent a stark message to other regions of the United States that face the potential for natural disasters: Throw out plans that call for citizens to be self-sufficient for three days. It may take longer for the cavalry to arrive.

The slow, confused initial responses to Katrina are among many elements of the disaster now prompting state and local emergency management officials around the country to take a hard look at disaster-response plans.

In many cases, these reviews were already under way as part of National Preparedness Month. But Katrina - followed in short order by hurricane Ophelia's sweep over North Carolina and now Rita's charge into the Gulf of Mexico - has emphasized the need to have effective plans ready at a moment's notice.

"We've seen what happens when the federal government hasn't done much of anything in advance," says Eric Holdeman, director of emergency planning for Washington State's King County, which includes Seattle and could be prone to an earthquake. "If you want to be prepared for the maximum credible catastrophic event, you should be thinking seven days, not just the minimum of three days."

In Florida, which has emerged as a model for hurricane planning, officials ordered all 80,000 residents of the Keys to evacuate ahead of Rita's arrival. Some, however, stayed behind in boarded-up homes. Military cargo planes evacuated three hospitals.

Whether for this hurricane season or for future situations, learning and applying the lessons from Katrina are crucial, analysts say, because despite its devastation, the hurricane actually wasn't a worst-case event. For example, researchers for years have had their eyes fixed on Los Angeles. Some studies suggest that if the Puente Hills Fault underneath the city ruptures, the temblor could leave hundreds of thousands of people homeless, inflict $250 billion in damage, and kill 20,000.

The Eastern US faces significant - and underappreciated - earthquake risks of its own. While large earthquakes occur there far less frequently, many of the buildings are older, unreinforced brick. And Eastern cities have been slower to change building codes to reduce earthquake fatalities, despite warnings of the hazards.

Some studies suggest that New York, for example, should be as prepared for an earthquake as San Francisco. The potential damage, death toll, and fallout on the US economy could rival that of a major quake in the Bay Area.

In Boston, which has earthquake risks as well, city officials have seen Katrina's handwriting on the wall. They are beefing up evacuation plans, gearing up to withstand more-intense hurricanes, and looking to establish well-stocked shelters for poor or disabled residents who may not be able to leave the city.

Even cities whose hazards may not reach Katrina's proportions are reviewing their plans. In Tulsa, Okla., for example, the public-works department is reexamining how it would respond to worst-case floods that involve a breach of levees that channel the Arkansas River.

"It's probably been 15 years or more since we've looked at that," says Charles Hardt, the city's public-works director. Katrina has been "a wake-up call."

Los Angeles and New York are among the cities acknowledged to have some of the most advanced response plans. Officials in these places say they have honed their plans through repeated reviews and rehearsals. Watching the response to Katrina hasn't altered their plans much, although they're keeping in mind a checklist of practices that would reduce the chance of major missteps.

When it comes to ensuring that the poor or infirm are evacuated to well-stocked shelters in an emergency, Florida is a state that has largely gotten it right, planners say.

"Our lessons learned came from hurricane Andrew," says Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the state's emergency operations center. Storm-specific coordination between state, county, and local agencies begins two to three days before a hurricane strikes. Relief supplies are squirreled away in safe locations. During the year, local officials keep track of the people who may need help evacuating.

Yet disaster response is only half the equation, researchers and planners say. To reduce the effects of an earthquake, storm, or flood, more emphasis must be placed on helping cities build disaster resilience, they argue. Yet such mitigation is not getting the support it needs, they say.

Experts point to the success of programs such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact. During the 1990s, this initiative provided seed money for a range of mitigation projects, from improving earthquake resistance in structures in the Pacific Northwest to developing economical "safe rooms" for homes and offices in tornado-prone areas. The program ended shortly after President Bush took office.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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